Making Sense of Fairness in Sports

By Murray, Thomas H. | The Hastings Center Report, March-April 2010 | Go to article overview

Making Sense of Fairness in Sports


Murray, Thomas H., The Hastings Center Report


From the steroid scandals of major league baseball to analysis of Oscar Pistorius's cheetahs to the sex-verification test of Caster Semenya, questions today about what constitutes fairness in sports are wide-ranging and varied.

It's easier to see what's unfair in sports. Suppose that the judges award the Olympic figure skating gold medal in Vancouver because of the skaters' wacky costumes--all feathers, sequins, and teasing glimpses of skin. Or that they choose based on their views on the skaters' countries of origin, or because they were bribed, or by tossing a coin.

All these are unfair (and some have been documented, or at least suspected, in past competitions). How do we know they're unfair? Because everyone who understands figure skating--or alpine skiing, or bobsledding, or, for that matter, baseball, cycling, or any other competitive sport--knows what's supposed to separate winners from also-rans. Among the countless differences between competitors, from eye color to favorite food, only certain differences are meant to be highlighted in each particular sport.

Successful short-track speed skaters possess explosive strength, finely honed technique, and the courage to face the possibility of serious injury from razor-sharp blades. Nordic skiers must have astonishing stamina. Each sport calls upon its particular mix of physical talents. Every sport requires the commitment to perfect those talents and to learn how to employ them skillfully and strategically. It may not be easy to say exactly what fairness means, but the ease with which we can call out unfairness suggests that the task is worthwhile and far from hopeless.

A match that should never happen is a one-on-one basketball game between LeBron James and me. When LeBron trounces me--as he assuredly will--it may be uninteresting, probably comical, perhaps even YouTubeable, but it will not be unfair. He is simply a superior player, not merely to me but probably to every other person living on this planet. (Kobe Bryant is likely to disagree.) The playing field, or court, is level. Talent and dedication determine the winner.

Then there are times when we choose to level the playing field by multiplying it. In the 2008 Paralympics there were thirteen distinct finals for the men's one-hundred-meter dash, twelve for the women's. The varieties and degrees of impairment among Paralympians in no way detract from the talents and dedication that competitors bring to the games. But the variety also requires that the playing field be made level so that every athlete is competing against people with similar levels of impairment. In that way, talent and the many things we admire about dedicated athletes are on display and shape each athlete's performance.

The first thing to note is that a fair sports competition does not require that athletes be equal in every imaginable respect. Some basketball players are taller, stronger, quicker, or more agile than others. No one--well, almost no one--regards such differences in natural talents as unjust or unfair. Some have better coaches or more favorable training environments. At what point such differences cross the line from inevitable and acceptable to iniquitous and deplorable is something to be debated and settled by the people who participate in, understand, and love that sport--not by distant and disinterested philosophers. Debates such as this go on regularly in sports over new equipment, rules, strategies, and the like. Take the recent kerfuffle over the super-slippery, buoyant full-body swimsuits. After initial dithering, the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA)--the international governing body for swimming--last year banned many suits on the grounds that they changed the nature of the sport by allowing bulky athletes to float on top of the water rather than having to push through it. Whatever one thinks of FINA's ruling, it was right to focus on the meaning of the sport and on what characteristics lead to excellence and success. …

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